As agile as a flock of birds

I am blessed with many uncles but only one of them possesses a streak of eccentricity : he’s a birdwatcher. I’ll never forget the trips we took to observe our winged friends in their natural habitat. Needless to say, it wasn’t exactly my favourite time together. We’d lie for hours in hiding, shivering and waiting for one or other stilt to pass by. Yet, the only birds that inspired me were ducks and swallows. Not for their feathers, mind you, but for the mere fact that they moved in a flock. I loved their mysterious patterns against the sky, the graceful ease with which they moved in all directions and still managed to stay together, the agility with which the flock changed shape….

Agility … the fashionable trend in HR circles these days. Any organisation worth its salt needs to be agile, staffed with agile employees who are offered the right trainings so they can move swiftly in the right direction.
Yet, is agile truly the big change organisations have been waiting for or is another buzz that will soon fizzle out ? It depends !

THE USE OF AGILITY

The cradle of ‘Agile’ is to be found in the software development bedroom. It was a new method to manage software development with the novelty to chunk up the project in small time slots - iterations - of 2 to 4 weeks. This allowed to adapt quickly to changing circumstances or to the wishes of the customer who got to be involved actively in the development cycle.

Sounds good, right ? How could we argue with the promise of Agile in world that is becoming more VUCA by the minute ? (VUCA : Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous). What organisation would like to be the next Kodak or Nokia and lose their leading market position because they reacted too slowly and too late to a changing society ?

You’re better off observing sparrows, I’d say ! Look how dashing and agile their flocks move. What is the secret of their success?

In a flock, it is not necessary for birds to systematically fly in the same direction, but it is important to fly at the same speed. Each bird communicates with precisely seven other birds who are closest to them. They do this continuously, constantly and fast.
As soon as one bird senses danger or a change in its environment , he immediately reacts by changing direction. The birds closest to him follow while avoiding to collide. They follow the direction of the bird in the lead and stay as close as possible to those in their immediate vicinity.

AGILE AS A FLOCK OF SPARROWS ?

To make an organisation agile is a lot like expecting a pack of wolves to behave like a flock of sparrows. This is a heavy-duty culture change and goes much deeper than a lick of paint on a crumbling facade. Screaming out loud that agility is needed in order to survive won’t do the trick.

So ask yourself : why is changing into a more agile company culture necessary for you ? What does your ‘agile’ organisation look like ? Only when you succeed to translate this underlying vision to an inspiring story, you will stimulate people to change their behaviour.

Company structure, procedures and processes, decision making and leadership all need to be tuned in to an agile way of working. As long as you don’t adapt the environment and the way people can organise their work, employees will fall back into their old behavioural patterns. In how far are you and your senior managers willing to make those changes ? Without the commitment of your organisation’s top management, you can simply forget the whole endeavour.

Each bird feels at home within his flock

Organisations create connection by sharing a common vision and ambition.
‘Agile’ doesn’t work with detailed manuals. Agile companies write a manifesto : ‘this is what we stand for”. With symbols and ritual they bring their culture explicitly to the surface. And by telling stories, they keep their culture alive.

In a flock, each bird flies at the same speed and tunes into the way the other birds fly.

In an agile organisation, everyone takes their colleagues into account. Each employee is engaged and strives for the same level of quality. Roles and responsibilities are flexible; behaviour that favours success of the group prevails but there is space for creativity and individual differences. Not every bird needs to fly in the same direction.

Communication in a flock is immediate and continuous.

Changes are addressed instantaneously. ‘Agile management’ and short cycli can’t work without regular mutual consultation and continuous feedback.

In a flock, it isn’t clear who’s leading, the leader changes all the time.

Apply this to your teams. Let them organise themselves and allow them to take their ow decisions. Cultivate ownership through servant leadership. A serving leader gives trust, stimulates engagement and offers opportunities to grow.

People aren’t birds

If you look at this list, it is pretty obvious that most companies are a far cry from ‘agility’. To get there, they will need to be prepared to review their entire culture and all aspects on how they are organised today. This is a difficult exercise but the goal is attainable. What’s more, some companies have succeeded brilliantly. You can find their stories in the book ‘Reinventing Organisations’ by Frédéric Laloux.

With all this said, let’s not idealise those sparrows. One of the main reasons why a flock frequently changes shape, is because no bird loves to fly on the outside. That’s where you are most likely to be attacked by predators. Inside the flock, it’s cosy and safe and you can keep a low profile.
Today, many organisations have only this trait in common with the flock : the one who sticks out their neck or seeks a new limit, takes the biggest risk.

Perhaps that is the first change to tackle…

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